Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 2 ★★★★

If Frank Miller's story is new to you, or you’re simply not a comic book fan, it would seem very unlike anything you’d expect. The scope widens dramatically between the two chapters of this story, and Miller’s interpretations of the two most iconic DC universe heroes (and one villain) are far more dark, bleak, and disturbing than anything you’ll be prepared for.

Miller’s work has long been praised for being possibly the most climactic moment in Batman’s development as a character (regardless of what timeline it’s set in) - it’s the moment when he is forced to confront the dichotomy of his moral quest and break his own rules of engagement. It’s ultimately a lose-lose proposition, orchestrated in a brutally senseless way by his most vile nemesis. It’s powerful, and extremely dark. And it’s not even the climax of the story.

Add to that a face-off with Superman, the stakes of which are grim and far-reaching - and not just for the characters involved, but for the future of Gotham and even America as a whole.

This second chapter is almost entirely pay-off, a necessary redemption for the barely-coming-to-boil first chapter. And, boy, is it dark, with multiple set-pieces involving high body counts. The same scene-to-scene pacing affects the second part just as the first, but with such density of action and plot, it feels less problematic here.

But the source material problems present in the first chapter are slightly exacerbated in the character development of this film. While Bruno is a character who deserves to be left on the pages of Miller’s graphic novel, there are other characters like Abner (who should have been introduced in the first chapter, if the source material was to be followed at all) and Oliver Queen (Green Arrow) who are barely developed, and even the new police commissioner’s motivations are poorly explained.

However, there’s a certain braveness to framing this story in a timeline we know next to nothing about. We don’t get a complete picture of the reasons for superheroes having retired for decades, how they were injured (Green Arrow), nor how villains wound up in institutions (Joker, Two Face) to begin with. Much of it feels outside the realm of the DC Universe canon, and as someone who admires the characters and stories within the pages of comic books without having followed them closely, a fresh new interpretation - and especially one that spins off on a new tangent chronologically - is ultimately far more rewarding than following in the footsteps of canon and limiting a storyline to the parameters set before.

Miller's exploration of these characters along with his incredibly cynical outlook on cold war politics - one which makes an amazing caricature out of Reagan - has long resonated with me as a remarkable balance of satire with brooding undertones, of the more cartoony aspects of the Gotham universe (Robin) with gritty realism (killing sprees and mass murder), and of moral ideals with actual justice.

It’s difficult for me to know if my admiration for Miller’s source material affects my outlook on these films, or if they are able to truly stand alone. I don’t think these films are targeted at the average movie-goer, or even that fans of Nolan’s work will enjoy this interpretation, but that’s not to say they’re not accessible. The power in the film’s climactic moments comes from an understanding of what makes Batman (the modern version) tick. There are so many versions of Batman that are clearly wrong interpretations (Schumacher), while others come incredibly close without ever succeeding one hundred percent (Nolan). Others still wind up somewhere in the middle (Burton). There are very few storytellers who have been able to get Batman right like Miller did, and I loved seeing his work come to life, in spite of this film's faults.